The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has dealt a severe blow to migrant workers and those working in the informal sector. While there has been substantial media coverage regarding the plight of the former as they walked hundreds of miles to return to their villages due to hunger and lack of wages, little attention has been paid to domestic workers, who constitute a chunk of the informal sector.
Most of these workers, who get meagre wages and whose jobs remain insecure, could not work during the nationwide lockdown. Although people were urged to continue paying their house help, very few actually received even half of their salaries.
Taking cognisance of the plight faced by these workers, SEWA Homecare Cooperative, a member of the SEWA Cooperative Federation, started an initiative for domestic workers in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The cooperative held discussions with the employers of 92 domestic workers via emails to convince them to not stop paying their salaries.
Salonie Muralidhara Hiriyur, Senior Coordinator for social enterprises at SEWA Federation, says, “The incomes of these women are what keeps their households running. Their husbands work as daily wage labourers and autorickshaw drivers and owing to the lockdown they have also stopped earning. The leaders of the cooperative realised that this spelt grave trouble for the workers and started reaching out to the employers via email. They negotiated with them so as to ensure that maximum number of employers pay full salaries to their house help.”
However, despite the best efforts of the cooperative, many employers refrained from paying wages to the workers. Salonie says, “All the employers paid the salaries for March but there was a drop in the numbers for April. Out of the 92 women, many did not receive their salaries for April.”
Given the precarious situation of these women, the cooperative stepped in and transferred Rs 5,000 to each of those women, who had not been paid by their employers, from its savings. Negotiations are underway for the salaries of May, Salonie informed.
“The Federation has also followed up with all the employers of these cooperatives to make sure that the April salaries are also paid even though the employees could not report for work. The Gujarat government has recently issued a directive making it mandatory for employers to pay domestic help. We hope that that will convince them as the cooperative also has limited financial resources,” she adds.
The financial assistance comes at a time when domestic workers are staring at an uncertain future. Despite the lockdown being eased by the central government, employers are hesitating to let them inside their homes. Salonie says, “COVID-19 cases have been reported in the settlements where the domestic workers live which has made employers fearful. Besides, the stigma against domestic workers with respect to hygiene is adding to their plight.”
Despite these troubles, the cooperatives efforts have been akin to the proverbial silver lining for these workers.
Champaben has been a member of the Homecare Cooperative for the last 12 years. She travels eight kms daily to work as a caregiver for an 80-year-old woman. When the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24th, Champaben was concerned for her salary. Anxiety crept in as she is the primary earner in her family, but the cooperative's initiative saved her from penury. She says, "We were assured by the cooperative's supervisors that we would be given full salaries for the month of March. Thanks to their efforts, we got early payments. The supervisors also call the members regularly to check if they need any help."
Sarojben, a homecare worker says, “All my neighbours said how fortunate I was that the Cooperative ensured that I got my salary for March, which was directly deposited into my bank account. My neighbours, who work as domestic workers, are forced to stay at home and are unable to get even partial salaries. They say that they too want to join the cooperative because they see how supportive the cooperative has been.”
SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) is a self-employed women's trade union registered under the Indian Trade Unions Act of 1926, and is based in Ahmedbad, Gujarat. Since its inception in 1972, SEWA has been actively working in empowering women and towards making them self-reliant. These cooperatives are present across various sectors, including dairy, agriculture, handicraft, service sector, credit, savings, and trade. Besides supporting the cooperatives with their needs, the federation helps in setting up business processes and with training, marketing, capacity-building, networking and maintaining accounts. In the last 25 years, the Federation has organised three lakh women into 106 primary cooperatives with a current annual turnover of Rs 300 crore.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)